It’s probably a band’s greatest fear to be upstaged by its opening act. If Georgia weirdos Of Montreal had entertained that possibility, they might not have invited indie-pop/dance charmer Janelle Monae to join them on tour supporting their new album, “False Priest“.
At the first of two sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club Monday night, Monae’s uber-tight 50-minute set sang and danced circles around Of Montreal’s 100-minute mess. Monae’s vocals were outstanding — if a bit buried in the club’s bass-heavy mix — as she delivered a series of stunningly controlled vocal runs on a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and sang in a low, dark rumble on “Mushrooms & Roses.” She rapped (“Dance Or Die”), she wailed (“Cold War”), she danced and she even emitted a series of what sounded like bird calls (“Wondaland”).
Her high-energy, high-momentum set certainly set a high bar for Of Montreal. Unfortunately, the eight-piece band faltered almost immediately. Frontman Kevin Barnes’s grand entrance (behind two large dancing skeletons wearing big fish over their heads) felt empty: There was no relation to the music and the characters didn’t even attempt to tell a story. They just stood around, bouncing and waving their arms.
The randomness-for-randomness’ sake continued: Four back-up dancers ran out on stage during many of the night’s songs, each time wearing different colored bodysuits with different flamboyant headdresses. There were red bodysuits with flame heads (“Sex Karma”), there were silver bodysuits with big triangular hand-covers (“Godly Intersex”), and there were black-and-white-checked bodysuits (“Like a Tourist”). And throughout all of this, the crowd stood mostly motionless — a vastly different response to the enthusiasm Monae conjured. (To Barnes’s credit, a few songs, notably “She’s a Rejector” and “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” did incite some dancing in the audience.)
The real issue with the dancers wasn’t the constant costume changes, though. It was the mechanical way they interacted with the band’s music. Their presence became predictable: Two-thirds of the way through a song, they’d creep out on stage and writhe around. It all felt formulaic, becoming more tedious with every passing song.
There were other gimmicks: Midway through the set, a gigantic screen was wheeled onstage, showing Barnes performing the simple piano ballad “Ghetto World.” It looked pre-recorded, and while it might have been filler to help accommodate Barnes’s wardrobe change, the screen set-up itself took significant time, creating a lull in the set.
But perhaps the biggest, dumbest moment came at the end of the main set’s last song, when a huge inflatable astronaut-thing “walked” onto the stage and spoke robotically, its face mask lighting up in rhythm with its words. It was a big gesture (and a big prop) for such a fleeting moment, and it added nothing to the song or the set.
In some ways, Barnes has manufactured this need for grand gestures. He did, after all, famously ride a horse onstage at a New York City show a few years ago, setting expectations high for big, bold moves. So, when he came only kinda-sorta close to that last night, riding in on a dragon-like costume worn by the four bodysuited-dancers for the song “Hydra Fancies,” it felt like we had already seen better versions of all his tricks.
As flat as they fell, those costumes and props did offer a lot to look at. But even all of that couldn’t distract from the elephant in the (quickly-emptying) room: The hope of a live collaboration with Monae. (She sang on several tracks on “False Priest” and Of Montreal performed on one track on her recent album, “The Archandroid.”) And it certainly sounded as though Barnes was going to indulge the crowd as he introduced the final song in Of Montreal’s encore. “We’ve got a little surprise for you!” He paused. “This is very dangerous!”
But as quickly as hopes were raised, they were dashed: Instead of bringing Monae out, Of Montreal jumped into a (wait for it…) Michael Jackson medley. Surprisingly, one could not come up with a better cover for Barnes to tackle — both vocally and dramatically —than “Thriller,” which the group aced, and the audience sang and danced along predictably. Jackson’s music is an easy crowd-pleasing gimmick, but Of Montreal couldn’t even hold on to that: They lost significant momentum during a sloppy “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and an even sloppier “P.Y.T.” It was a moment that, like the rest of the night, exposed exactly what Of Montreal was lacking: A little focus and a whole lot of editing.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
Photos by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post